Nondumiso Gasa visisted the Washington DC office of the TransAfrica Forum on 10 March to brief on her struggle to attract attention to the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. Gasa, chair of South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality, is part of the campaign Save Zimbabwe Now and recently completed a 21-day hunger strike in attempts to cause the international community to help the Zimbabwean refugees that are flowing into South Africa as well as those still inside Zimbabwe.
In her briefing she touched on her experiences of meeting with refugees at the South African border town of Musina. She said that she has seen the crisis evolve along typical migration routes, where in the past the men of Zimbabwe had left for work in South Africa’s mines, then followed by the women as domestic servants, but that now unaccompanied minors ranging from 8 to 17 years old are crossing the border in hopes of finding employment, and more importantly food, in Pretoria or Johannesburg.
The Save Zimbabwe Now campaign has criticized numerous actors in the region, from Mugabe to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to the South African government. In that regard Save Zimbabwe NOW has produced a film titled “The Shame of Musina”. It documents the struggle that Zimbabwean refugees have had in South Africa where they must live in the open air show ground of the town. They are not permitted to leave, as the police has established a non-official policy of arresting anyone that goes beyond the ‘border’ that extends 100 yards into the town. This in turn prohibits anyone to seek help from the local police. The impact of this policy is most intensely felt by the women of the refugee ‘camp’ as they are unable to report rapes to the authorities. The film showed how women must endure multiple rapes on their path out of Zimbabwe and also after arriving in South Africa. Gasa said that intergenerational rape is common, and the practicing of ‘mattress’ rapes (where the man must lie underneath his wife while she is raped) is prevelant in Musina.
Gasa discussed how rape in Zimbabwe has become a political weapon, one that she says SADC has no stand on. She described how child soldiers are initiated through the raping of family members. The closer the family member is to the child, the more ‘brave’ the child is considered. This leads Gasa to call women’s bodies battlefields in this crisis. She also makes the point that the events transpiring in Zimbabwe are not unique to the country and follow much the same path of other crises on the continent such as the Congo and Darfur when it comes to child soldiers, rape, internal displacement, and government killings. The use of appropriation of aid and supplies by the government, specifically ZANU-PF, for political purposes is an issue that must be addressed as well according to Gasa. She believes a special agency that is not under the government is needed to ensure that aid can be distributed. She cites the cholera tablets that were diverted to specific communities as the most recent of government abuses of aid.
In going on a 21-day hunger strike, which she continued the relay fast after Kumi Naidoo completed his hunger strike, Gasa wanted to highlight the use of a women’s body as a battlefield for this current conflict. She wanted to encourage others to not be passive about this conflict and to learn how to resist through their bodies. On her sixth day she had alarmingly low levels of iron and was forced to hospital where she was administered an intravenous drip for 8 hours. She said of this experience that it showed her that she “had no control over her body” and that she was “not brave at all”. However, she said of her time lying in hospital that it gave her “clarity of thought and conviction” to finish her fast.
She said that in living in South Africa for the past few years, many believed that South Africa was working towards a solution with Thabo Mbeki’s Quiet Diplomacy. On her visit to Musina and viewing the conditions of life there, Gasa subsequently saw that “we are in [a] much different problem” . She believes that the unitary government that was forced upon Zimbabwe by SADC, which led to the current unitary government between Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC, has only legitimized ZANU-PF and what she calls the Mugabe ‘phenomenon’. Gasa however believes that once “government…uses military on its own country it loses its legitimacy”. She says that the presence of the military that currently hangs over Prime Minister Tsvangirai restricts any real change he can implement.
Turning to the solutions that Save Zimbabwe Now and Gasa believe are needed, she said that Save Zimbabwe Now is asking for others to pledge their solidarity and create a “people to people struggle”. She believes more discussion in churches or other forums are necessary to creating a movement where the more voices that exsit the more likely they will achieve their goals. Save Zimbabwe Now calls on the US to join in the struggle, through donations, fasting, and most importantly a political advocacy movement in which the goal of restoring human dignity to the people of Zimbabwe can be acheived.
Gasa asks for Obama to send a special envoy to SADC and to weigh the different options through multilateral discussion on whether or not to lift sanctions. To this end Gasa believes that if donor money is allowed to flood in, the government and Mugabe will be able to ignore the people of Zimbabwe and their vote. Gasa does not have much faith in SADC in terms of delivering wide spread aid as she believes they do not have the capability to distribute a humanitarian package from themselves. She believes the fact that most of these nations are themselves cash-strapped and their cozy relations with the ZANU-PF region will result in wasted aid money.
In closing, Gasa gave a warning that seemed to stress her belief that the time to act is now. She says that she expects no action to come down from the ANC government in Pretoria as public discontent with the refugees is growing. She said in Johanessburg, the security forces routinely raid the churches where refugees stay when the police “want to have some fun or make some money”. Gasa points to the Democractic Alliance ousting the ANC from the ward in Musina where the refugees stay. Gasa says the DA ran their platform on a xenophobic message in the area because of the refugees.
In the end, Ms. Gasa did provide a first hand account of the suffering that the people of Zimbabwe endure when they enter South Africa, and she rightly criticized many of the organizations that have been tasked to solve this issue. However, her prescriptions for change were vague, especially when she answered a question from the audience about what the US should do by saying that American’s should pledge solidarity with the Zimbabwean people. This perhaps gives an insight into this complex issue that even the people on the ground who are interacting with these many different actors do not have a clear plan for solving the problem. Their hope that by attracting more attention will bring an end to the suffering is a difficult task, but as seen with the conflict in Darfur and many others on the continent, more media attention is never the final answer to the conflicts that are troubling Africa.